Learning From Our Elders

Riverside Park pool, Lynchburg, Virginia, 2016
  1. On 4 July 1961, Audrey Lenon was swimming at Jefferson Park pool, Lynchburg, Virginia. The day was hot. Temperatures exceeded 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As the fifteen-year-old and her friends cooled off, swimming and playing in the water, a uniform line of shade appeared on its clear-blue surface. ‘There was a ramp that you walked down to get to the pool,’ Lenon recalls. ‘We looked up and it was lined with police officers. They told us to get out of the water.’ The police instructed Lenon and the other swimmers that day to collect their belongings and leave. ‘We asked, “What happened?” and “Why are you closing the pool?” but we didn’t get any answers. We were just told to put our clothes on, and the pool was closed. That’s all they said. I guess they didn’t feel like they needed to tell us.’ At the time, Jefferson Park pool was the only public swimming facility in Lynchburg open to African Americans.  
  1. Construction began on the Jefferson Park pool in 1923. The pool’s natural basin was excavated by convict labour and ‘was set to be much larger and more impressive than the pool in use at Miller Park’—one of two public swimming pools open to white people only. On 9 August 1924, Jefferson Park pool was officially opened. On Independence Day, thirty-seven years later, as Lenon and her friends were swimming over at nearby Miller Park pool, a group of black children and community leaders staged a swim-in. The City of Lynchburg’s retaliation to this act of public disorder was to shut the three city pools that day: Miller Park, Jefferson Park and Riverside Park. In response to their drainage Philip Lightfoot Scruggs, editor of The News wrote: ‘Negro leaders forcing the issue knew that this would be the result of any attempt to integrate either of the pools used by whites. Perhaps, today, they are proud of their accomplishments and consider their “sense of justice” somehow satisfied. If so, we suspect that all the other swimmers, both Negro and white, question the value of the accomplishment and wonder a bit at such a strange “sense of justice”.’ 
  1. The summer of 1961 was marked by several other civil and legal disputes over desegregation. In Nashville, when a swim-in was followed by a lawsuit, the city was forced to desegregate their pools. The facilities were promptly shut. In Memphis, Tennessee city-officials announced a gradual ten-year desegregation plan, justifying the lagging pace on the ‘avoidance of confusion and turmoil’ and the ‘maintenance of law and order’. Two years later, the plan was overturned by the Supreme Court. The pools soon closed. In Lynchburg, the federal district court responded to a similar lawsuit by demanding the city abandon its policy of pool segregation. The ruling could not however force Lynchburg to reopen its pools. In 1968 the Jefferson Park swimming pool was filled in and permanently closed. The concession stand was knocked down. The bathhouse too. Its four separate rooms, two of which were for men, one for boys and one for women and girls to share, was completely demolished.   
  1. In response to the closure of the city’s public swim facilities, and despite protest from many of Lynchburg’s white parents, that summer Reverend Bev Cosby welcomed children of all colours and genders to swim in the pool at camp Kum-Bah-Yah. The democratisation of recreational activities prior to the 1960s was not unusual. During the 1930s, the period of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government spent 750 million dollars widening access to public recreation facilities by building and renovating thousands of pools, parks and leisure centres. Swimming pools, however, were frequently still segregated. In 1940, the New York Learn to Swim Campaign flouted this convention. The Department of Parks programme, which was commissioned by Robert Moses, welcomed both black and white children to its city pools. The campaign’s promotional poster—a colourful silkscreen designed by John Wagner—depicted children of different ages, races and genders sharing the same space. Although the shading of the central figure lends a racial ambiguity to his appearance, the dividing line between black and white is clear. Its effect is a shade more hazy: is it the children’s alignment or segregation that causes the potentially-chaotic instability on the bending board? 
  1. The gender disparity in Wagner’s poster correlates with the greater proportion of male to female swimmers who used NYC’s public pools. The artwork’s absence of white women, however, underpins a more hostile trend. The objection to close contact between black males and white females was often supported by racist claims of disease, dirt, and sexual intimidation. Gender-segregated pools ignited fewer of these concerns. In the 1920s, the municipal pools which served the city’s working-class male community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were racially inclusive. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s African American newspaper, the decision to allow black and white men to swim together caused ‘no problems’. However, the opening of a large, resort-style, mixed-gender pool in 1931 caused significant civil unrest. The ensuing violence was met with institutional racism. When a group of white male swimmers physically attacked a group of black teenagers in the Highland Park pool the black youngsters were arrested and charged with inciting riot. Racial violence quickly spread to the city’s gender-segregated pools. On 7 July 1935, nine-year old Frank Reynolds was beaten by a group of white youths at Paulson Pool. When his mother reported the crime, Inspector Kellie of Police Station No. 6 responded: ‘Why can’t you people use the Washington Boulevard pool, I don’t approve of coloured and white people swimming together.’ 
  1. There is little evidence of the old city pools at either Miller or Jefferson Park. At Riverside a trace remains. Though the swimming complex now looks more like a lawn than a pool, its concrete sides are still visible. An elder tree stands stately at the top of the old foundations, growing through the retaining wall, above which the bathing house used to sit. The tree’s roots dig down into the filtration system, where chain-gangs once hammered. Its branches provide shade from the southern sun. 200 miles East of Virginia (in Los Angeles), the provision shade is a race issue. People living in poor neighbourhoods in Downtown LA—a high-percentage of whom are black or brown—are not only exposed to higher levels of air pollution, soil toxins and water contamination than wealthy communities living in areas like Bell Air, they are also subjected to higher temperatures as they traverse unshaded sidewalks devoid of trees. The region’s policy of prohibiting the planting of trees in parkways less than five feet in width, because of potential damage to sidewalks, means that shade is scarce in poor neighbourhoods. Residents are left to feel the heat. In Lynchburg, two weeks after city-officials closed its pools, Brian Robinson, a twelve-year-old African American boy drowned while swimming in a canal lock. According to a local newspaper, the boy would normally have cooled-off at Jefferson Park pool. 


‘End of Summer: When Lynchburg Closed Its Pools’, Appetite 4 History, Lynchburg, 2016. Accessed 14 July 2022 [https://appetite4history.com/2016/06/29/end-of-summer-when-lynchburg-closed-its-pools] 

Mariner, Cosmos, ‘Troubled to Healing Waters Historical Marker’, Troubled to Healing Waters A Reflection of Society, 2021. Accessed 14 July 2022 [https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=182836] 

James F. Heidi, ‘Lynch’s Ferry Magazine. A Journal of Lynchburg History’, The History of Riverside Park in Lynchburg, Virginia, 2007. Accessed 14 July 2022 [http://www.lynchsferry.com/archives/fall-2007/the-history-of-riverside-park/exclusive-online-content-4.htm] 

Alicia Petska, ‘Civil Rights in Central Virginia: Thaxton’s “swim-in” Turned Tide at Miller Park’, The News & Advance, 16 January 2009. Accessed 14 July 2022 [https://newsadvance.com/news/local/civil-rights-in-central-virginia-thaxtons-swim-in-turned-tide-at-miller-park/article_5ad46326-a157-51c9-ad5e-d4487fa53ccc.html] 


Victoria W. Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters the Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) pp 165-166 


Marta Gutman, ‘Race, Place, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 67.4 (2008), 532–61, p 532  https://doi.org/10.1525/jsah.2008.67.4.532  

John Wagner, Learn to Swim Campaign Classes for All Ages Forming in All Pools, 1936, silkscreen, 55.9 x 35.6 cms. Accessed 14 July 2022 [https://www.loc.gov/item/98516763/] 


Jeff Wiltse, ‘Swimming against Segregation: The Struggle to Desegregate’, Pennsylvania Legacies, 10.2 (2010), p 13 https://doi.org/10.5215/pennlega.10.2.0012 

Jeff Wiltse, ‘“One for the White Race and the Other for the Coloured Race” The Onset of Racial Discrimination, 1920 to 1940’, in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007) 

Victoria W. Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters the Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) p 533 


Bloch, Sam, ‘Shade’, Places Journal, 2019 https://doi.org/10.22269/190423 

Dungy, Camille T., ed., Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009) 

‘End of Summer: When Lynchburg Closed Its Pools’, Appetite 4 History, Lynchburg, 2016 Accessed 14 July 2022 [https://appetite4history.com/2016/06/29/end-of-summer-when-lynchburg-closed-its-pools/]